Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav was the original “Cold Lamper,” but now Athens, Ga., indie rockers Of Montreal are doing a little lampin’ of their own
. Skeletal Lamping
, to be exact, which is the title of their just-mastered new album, due out this October.
Frontman and songwriter Kevin Barnes and keyboardist Dottie Alexander were kind enough to invite some of the Paste staff over to Dottie’s in Athens for a special sneak-preview listening session earlier this week, complete with pulled-pork sandwiches and cold beer. What we heard wasn’t exactly louder than a bomb, but it’s certainly bound to get some asses shakin’ later this year. Here are some initial impressions, straight from my hand-scrawled notes:
[Song titles for this record are not yet available (because they don’t exist). Also, while Barnes did his best to point out the many not-so-obvious segues between songs, sometimes he forgot...or maybe I missed his cue when he tried to tell me. So all track breaks below are best guesses. Plus, Barnes said he might re-order some of the songs before the release.]
Skeletal Lamping opens with a synthesized hammered dulcimer. Soon, a driving beat kicks in, and finally Kevin’s unmistakable voice enters—twisting, leaping and turning through an acrobatic melody. A chorus of “thank you”s erupts and is followed by a blunt bass riff, then tempo changes, pauses and accents. There’s an industrial element, topped by tightly fuzzed-out guitars. The beat almost emulates a CD skipping for a while—albeit more musically (hey, maybe CD skipping is the new record scratching). The cacophony builds as the beat finally shifts. Soon the song fades out in a wash of ambient noise, distant choir vocals and rattlesnake percussion. This is unlike anything Of Montreal has done before. But the song is actually not over yet... the beat picks back up and we enter a hypnotic groove with dreamy toy-piano melodies floating on top.
2. A funky shuffle, with bomb-dropping bass and falsetto vocals. Said vocals recall Curtis Mayfield, or maybe Shuggie Otis. Suddenly, the beat gets more erratic and complex—there’s an African percussive-string vibe and weird layers of vocals. Still, it’s a fairly minimalist sound overall. It’s weirder than anything on the band’s last four records, but somehow every bit as accessible. It’s space-age psychedelic Afro-soul pop as interpreted by a whimsical whiteboy from Athens. A new section of the song begins with whooshing whip-crack percussion, underpinned by barely audible harpsichord (or kora?), booming bass and thundering kick drum.
3. Just as the previous song fades, a conga beat kicks in. And then the hook: “We can do it softcore if you want,” Barnes coos, “...I take it both ways!” He continues in falsetto on the upbeat, dancey verse. This song is undeniably catchy, and feels like a chart-topping hit in an alternate reality, or maybe in our own, if the planets align properly. A Jesus and Mary Chain-style drum loop plays momentarily before the song suddenly goes a capella with a string of “la-la-las.”
4. This one begins as a soul-searching/self-loathing/sad-eyed piano ballad, echoing into the void, as Barnes sings, “Why am I so damaged, girl? / Why am I so poisoned, girl?” Then, once again, the music erupts with a strong beat, but now there’s Caribbean-sounding horns, too. Instruments fade in and out of the mix, creating a gorgeous, constantly evolving sonic collage. Next comes a choppy R&B breakdown. “Do you remember, our summer as independents?” Barnes sings. A series of handclaps cues the return of a steadier beat and an epic, horn-laden outro. You can hear the influence of African pop (perhaps Toumani Diabate?). The song is sprinkled with electrifying octave/harmony guitar fills, and it keeps morphing until it finally downshifts. It seems that Skeletal Lamping is the perfect union of the band’s recent, glammy, beat-driven dance pop and its older, more erratic prog-pop, which was characterized by bizarre, complex songs that completely eschewed the verse-chorus-verse format, forever entering new sections and rarely repeating.
5. “I wanna crash your car / I wanna scratch your cheeks,” Barnes sings. A thumping disco beat carries this tune—an indie-pop summer jam that would sound perfect blasting up into the night sky. Tiny, precise, tight-locking rhythm-guitar patterns carry the song as if it’s coming down a churning factory assembly line. Must be a cool-ass factory.
6. This track begins with echo-laden strangeness before a lazy, skipping beat flops forward with Barnes talk-singing sexual innuendos in a trance-like flow. This album, so far, is all about the beats. Barnes should seriously think about producing some hip-hop records.
7. A slow, spacey, soul-funk jam. A lyric jumps out at me: “I’m so sick of sucking the dick of this cruel, cruel city.” Now, we’re somewhere between Prince, Shuggie Otis, Blowfly and André Benjamin impersonating Prince. It’s difficult not to bob your head while this one plays. So far, it’s been an incredibly daring record—a feast of strange sounds, funky beats and falsetto vocals. The music shifts again, and I can’t help but think of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
[At this point, I realize I missed a track change somewhere along the way. Barnes reminds that some of the transitions on the new album were purposefully meant to sound like mistakes, since, he says, mistakes are more interesting and do a better job of catching people’s attention. Plus, with all the changes within songs on Skeletal Lamping, it’s tough to tell whether a new song has started or just a new section of the current song. I ask Barnes where we’re at, then recalibrate for track nine.]
9. “We wear the parties / All over our bodies.” Chiming guitar fragments, clicking hi-hat beats and springy bass guitar bounces from the speakers. “How do you know it’s me? / I’ve got caller ID!” This is sung over glimmering beds of minor-key synths. Of Montreal has definitely become a dance band over the last few years, but their early stuff is completely different. Go listen to Coqueliot Asleep in the Poppies’s “Good Morning Mr. Edminton”—any bets on how fast a song like that would clear out a club?
10. The previous song flow seamlessly into this one; if Barnes hadn’t specifically pointed this change out to me, I would’ve thought it was the same track. After a while though, it begins to feel like this could be a Stones song from the early ’70s, but with hints of Queen, Bowie and Beatles. “Bad weather in my temporary head,” indeed.
11. As evidenced by several of the sample lyrics so far, this is a very sexually direct record. On this song, Barnes sings about his “Pleasure puss” while a super-dope clave beat holds down the rhythm. It’s simultaneously weird and catchy. Drony synths crawl beneath lyrics like, “When you’re dead, I’ll search for you like Orpheus / I’ll find you somehow.”
12 (or 13). Bells clank over a funky shuffle. Loads of percussion and synth layers dominate this hypnotic tune. It’s a weird trip (there’s that word again... weird), and tension builds from the monotonous rhythm.
13(?). “I feel just like a Ghost now,” Barnes sings on a dark intro that soon gives way to the assurance, “Don’t be afraid,” delivered in what suddenly sounds like a sweet, acoustic-guitar-anchored calypso ballad. But the conclusion to the “Don’t be afraid” line twists, ending with, “I’m only poisoning you.” The song wraps up with a breathtaking string interlude.
14. This one has the makings of an ’80s pop hit, but with a busier, more violent rhythm. “You only like him ’cause he’s sexually appealing,” Barnes sings. As we approach what seems like the end, the cacophony builds to a peak, not unlike the finale of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” but then a sound similar to the synthesized dulcimer (from the beginning of the album) enters. Before you know it, the beat goes double-time for a dramatic outro that finds Barnes gravitating toward a ragged, Isaac Brock-style delivery.
15. Of Montreal: a newer, weirder Donna Summer for the summer of ’08? (Even though the album won’t be out ’til fall, which is a shame, considering how well this stuff is suited to hot weather.) While the transitions are more erratic and jarring on the new album, it’s somehow less abrasive than much of last year’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer. Before I can even get my head around the final track, the album is gone as quick as it began. Still, there’s a collagist aesthetic that stands out, begging repeated listens to find each little nuance, and unravel each twisting song structure and lyric. While the album is certainly challenging, it’s catchy enough to not seem like music-theory homework.